After the pandemic shut down New York City’s club scene, drag performer CT Hedden headed for Tulum, Mexico for a new experience that wound up being both a solid financial move and a personally enlightening one.
What was supposed to be a two-week stay has turned into a three-month one, and Hedden still has a month to go. Hedden, a drag performer at Gitano’s New York location, as well as Indochine and other outposts, was invited to perform in Tulum. Initially, however, Hedden, who prefers to be identified by “he” and “him,” was brought down “to be in drag and bartend.” But the response has been so robust that Hedden works with a number of nearby properties now as well, working the door, selling bottle service and helping to generate business.
Staying in drag for 12 hours-plus a day in Tulum’s heat and humidity takes some work, as does “putting a lot of hairspray” on his face to keep makeup intact, Hedden said, adding that everything is outdoors, even the hotel’s dining. “Fashion is literally 120 percent of what I’m doing. Mexico had never experienced drag — the glitz, the glamour. My aesthetic is very fashion-forward. It’s a cross between normal drag and runway drag” with some Comme des Garçons, Marc Jacobs and other designer labels mixed in. Tulum residents’ preference for natural beauty products that are free from chemicals and paraffins is something he plans to continue to adopt once back in the U.S.
Referring to his penchant for hair-spraying his face, Hedden described that as “an old-school drag queen trick from runway shows in the 1990s. Please put in parentheses, ‘Do not try this at home.’ I put toilet paper in my nostrils to spray my face. But like I said, I don’t recommend it. Sometimes your eyelashes get stuck together. But all for the artistry. I’ve used nail glue on my earlobes like a crazy person, because our jewelry is so extravagant and heavy. Most of them are magnetic or clip-ons. What we do as drag queens is put foundation on our ear lobes, then layer it, powder it, and put nail glue on and attach the jewelry. To be honest, taking it off isn’t great.”
With the bulk of the tourists from Europe, and the rest from New York, Hedden said, “It’s amazing how many socialites, reality television stars, fashion designers and celebrities I’ve seen, whether they are hiding or not. If someone comes, I find out about it right away. Marc Jacobs was here for a private birthday; Lola, Madonna’s daughter, Luann [de Lesseps] from the ‘[Real] Housewives [of New York City],’ the Mexican actress Eiza González from ‘I Care a Lot’ and other Mexican, as well as Brazilian, stars and fashion people.”
Hedden has extended his stay for two weeks to pitch in with an April 4 fashion show that will showcase the work of a group of 10 female Mexican and Mayan designers. One designer has arranged for his grandmother to open what will be an intergenerational show that will support women’s rights and a charity. Having met with the designers, Hedden is volunteering his time purely for the experience, not for profits. Featuring designers from Tulum, Cancún, Copa and Mexico City, the show will be held at Gitano and the reception will be at a nearby locale.
Not about to wear tribal prints, appropriate the culture or be “disrespectful of the descendants of this land,” Hedden has spent time learning about the Mayan cultures, and how all the tapestry, fashion and other goods are all locally sourced. In addition to being shown pictures of how the indigenous Mayan descendants dress and learning about the fashion, he said, “It’s also interesting that a people that is 3,000 years old wore makeup [years ago]. How they created makeup out of clay, mud and ground-up flowers is so fascinating. People have embraced me; I’ve learned so much about fashion, makeup and their jewelry-making. The reason I am staying here is it’s evolving my fashion sense as well. There is a technique that is almost like weaving where they use a device with sand to smooth the fibers for fabric.”
Having experienced a lot of hate and aggression on Instagram for what some consider to be a pretty cushy pandemic retreat, Hedden said strict COVID-19 safety precautions like temperature checks and social distancing are being enforced at the beach club. Explaining that he was wary of getting sick before he arrived, Hedden said he wears a plastic mask, and is not visiting nearby towns. “At the same time, as an entertainer, this is how I pay my bills. I don’t get any relief funds [from the government]. I still have rent to pay in New York City.” Hedden added that the accommodations and meals are paid for. “If I can be surviving, learning culture, expanding my art and aesthetic and following all the rules, that’s all I really care about.”
He praised his bosses in Tulum, Melissa Perlman, who created Bikini Bootcamp, and Gitano’s James Gardner for taking the risk to bring a drag queen to the area. Despite the strong reception, Hedden said his personal safety was a concern before arriving. “You always hear these stories about anything that happened in Mexico…but I have a level head on my shoulders and I am aware of the situations that I go in. But as I said, the locals have been super, super welcoming to me. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the locals, I don’t know if I would have stayed…the people here work for no income compared to what Americans get and they are beautiful people. It’s been a life-changing experience. I am looking at art and aesthetics in a different way and I’ve grown as a person.”
With Indochine planning to reopen, Hedden will fly back to the States next month. Once back in New York, Hedden will be reconnecting with Susanne Bartsch for a few projects. “I can’t wait to see what the city is like. I’ve been gone for so long. I’m hearing such great news about things opening up again. Hopefully, we’re on the up-and-coming, back to normality [wave].”